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Classicism in Literature, Art and Architecture, Music

Updated on April 27, 2013


The classical revival in literature was led by 14th- and 15th-century Renaissance Italian humanists, such as Petrarch, who collected classical manuscripts, and the Platonist scholar Ficino, who translated and interpreted Greek philosophy. English humanists, such as Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, Dryden, and Pope, wrote in a classical style, as did the 17th-century French playwrights Molière, Corneille, and Racine. Later, classicism deeply influenced the 18th-century German dramatists Goethe and Schiller.

In the late 17th century, however, war raged between the "ancients" and the "moderns," a conflict continued in the 18th century by Friedrich von Schlegel, who defended classicism as an attempt to express the infinite in finite forms, and Mme de Staël, who rejected classicism as sterile, rule bound, and restrictive. Gradually, the more emotional, subjective Romantic movement triumphed over classicism in the 19th century, but in the 20th century a reaction against Romanticism by writers such as Rémy de Gourmont, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot resulted in a partial return to themes and attitudes of classical writers.


Art and Architecture

Renaissance classicism in art and architecture originated in 13th-century Italy with masters such as the painter Giotto and the sculptor Nicola Pisano, who broke away from Gothic symbolism to study the human form in the classic tradition. Classicism was further expressed in the paintings of Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, and Raphael, and in the sculpture of Michelangelo. The buildings of Brunelleschi, who sought the ancient principles behind architectural design, and the detailed architectural drawings of Palladio also had a deep influence.

In the 17th century neoclassicism swept Europe, guided by Boileau's theories. The movement received added momentum and a scientific basis in the 18th century with the excavations of ancient sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, and with the writings of the German scholar J. J. Winckelmann, who saw the perfect expression of form in Greek art and architecture. Neoclassicism culminated in the Empire style of Napoleon, who tried to re-create his own "Roman Empire."

The neoclassical spirit in art was reflected in the sculpture of Canova, and in the paintings of Poussin, who set the academic style; of David, the court painter of Louis XVI and Napoleon; and of Ingres, opponent of the Romantic painter Delacroix. Neoclassical architecture was dominated by the palace of Versailles, built partly by Louis Le Vau, and by the great English houses and churches of Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, and the Adam brothers. Many American public buildings and antebellum mansions copied first Roman and then Greek styles. Outstanding examples are the Virginia state capitol, designed by Jefferson, and the Bank of Pennsylvania by B. H. Latrobe. In the 20th century, art and architecture regained some of the classic sense of form through the late paintings of Cézanne, cubism, and the work of architects such as Mies van der Rohe and, later, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, and Robert Venturi.


In music, the term classical is loosely applied to all compositions that are not "popular." More precisely it refers to music composed in certain genres that have established criteria of form, such as symphonies, concerti, sonatas, and fugues. In the strictest sense it refers to the music composed between 1750 and 1820, particularly the masterworks of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. This music is characterized by objectivity, emotional restraint, simplicity, and consciously balanced form. In the 20th century a neoclassical movement developed as a reaction to Romanticism and an alternate to atonalism. Old forms were revived, and there was a tendency toward an objective style. The movement's leaders were Prokofiev—notably in his Classical Symphony (1916–1917)—Stravinsky, and Bartók.


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